Thursday, 15 December 2011

When, how and why do gender differences in language begin?

Could children’s segregated friendship groups account for the development of gender differences in language use?

It’s well known than women, on balance, use more standard forms than men do. They are more likely, for instance, to say I’m walking to school these days than I’m walkin’ to work.  What is not so well known is how, when and why children acquire these kinds of gender differences in language use.

Richard Cameron set out to find some answers in a Chicago elementary school. He recorded pairs of children in relaxed interviews with a friend, and analysed their use of two pronunciation features: -ing versus –in, as in the walking example, and the standard th pronunciation versus d in words like this or brother. His results come from 10 girls and 7 boys in 5th grade (aged 10-11) and 7 girls and 6 boys in 2nd grade (aged 7-8). In each age group there were children of both European American and African American descent.

The overall figures show small differences between boys and girls in the younger age group, with girls using slightly more of the standard pronunciations of both features. The differences increase dramatically for the older age group. Cameron explains the increase as reflecting the girls’ and boys’ friendship patterns. When the boys talked about their friends, they talked about boys, whereas when the girls talked about their friends the talk was about girls. This conforms to a wide range of previous work that shows that children tend to socialise in single sex groups. Gender segregation in friendship groups means that as children grow older their language use becomes increasingly divergent.

When Cameron looked at the results in more detail, though, he found that things were more complex. For th versus d the change between the older boys and the younger boys was in a different direction to the change for girls: older boys used more of the nonstandard d forms whereas older girls used more of the standard th forms. Cameron refers to this pattern as ‘dual polarization’.

For –ing versus –in, though, there was a split along ethnic lines. African American children showed a tendency towards dual polarization for -ing versus -in, but less so than for th versus d. However, European American children did not share this pattern at all. Instead, although the older girls used more standard pronunciations than the younger girls, the frequencies of the nonstandard forms for the older boys and the younger boys stayed the same. In other words, the girls seemed to change their behaviour as they grew older, but the boys didn’t.

Cameron admits to being puzzled by these findings. One possible explanation, he suggests, reflects children’s early exposure to gendered variation in the home. He cites previous research that shows mothers using more standard pronunciations to their young daughters than to their young sons. The younger children in his study, then, may reflect this kind of early input from their mothers. As children move through different stages of childhood, he suggests, they begin to associate social meanings with the different pronunciations. The social meanings of –ing may be different to the social meanings for th, and since social meanings are acquired in friendship groups which tend to be segregated by gender, they may differ for boys and for girls. The social meanings may develop as children grow older. The differences between the European Americans and the African Americans may also reflect friendship patterns. It is still not clear, though, why –ing versus -in should have a different social meaning to th versus d. A further puzzle is why boys prefer nonstandard pronunciations overall, while girls prefer standard pronunciations. Linguists do not agree on any explanation for this common finding.

What is clear from this study, though, is that gender differences in pronunciation are found in children as young as 7, and that these gender differences increase as children grow older, in different ways for different features. It is also clear that intriguing differences can emerge when we look beyond overall patterns of gender differences in language.
Cameron, Richard 2010. Growing up and apart: Gender divergences in a Chicagoland elementary school. Language Variation and Change 22 (2): 279-319.
doi: 10.1017/S0954394510000074

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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